TIME TO BURY THE ‘E’ WORD

What has Jimmy Carter to do with Pat Robertson? Both would name themselves evangelicals, but it would be a very broad church indeed that could accommodate them. David Bebbington came up with perhaps the most credible definition of the evangelical movement in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Evangelicalism, according to Bebbington, has four characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Undoubtedly, many calling themselves evangelicals would still affirm these, but the range of meaning ascribed to each of these characteristics by those within the evangelical tradition has expanded dramatically, to the point where encompassing so much they explain very little.

Undoubtedly there are parts of the world where Bebbington’s four elements still call forth considerable agreement, but in the Anglo-American world it is increasingly the case that evangelicalism has become so diverse that the term has been rendered almost meaningless. Evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement but diversity isn’t endless. At some point diversity gives way to incoherence.

This lack of theological coherence is not the only challenge facing contemporary evangelicalism. A further problem is the extent to which evangelicalism has undermined the church. Historically, evangelicals worked across confessional boundaries, but the church, particularly the local church, remained central. Evangelical agencies were enablers, bringing churches together to work more effectively as the church.

Today, though, evangelical agencies - ‘ministries’ as they tend to be known these days – spring up like mushrooms and have, in many cases, replaced or usurped the role of the church, becoming alternative vehicles for activism of all kinds for those who are, perhaps, frustrated with the constraints of church. They enable us to connect, both physically and electronically, with a self-selecting group of like-minded people who share our beliefs and values. These ministries, though, lack the discipline of church and, worse still, they enable us to avoid the hard work of living with, growing with – and debating with – those who are different from us. I grew up in some very conservative Baptist and Brethren circles in Northern Ireland, but there was more diversity in a Mission Hall on a Sunday night than there is in many of the ministries that have arisen in the evangelical world.

Yet while these more theological matters may be of concern to those who consider themselves evangelical, the biggest challenge to evangelicalism is that the rest of the world doesn’t see the evangelical community in terms of its theology – or theologies – but in terms of its practices. Right now I live in Washington, DC. If I were to stop someone on the street tomorrow and ask for that person’s views on evangelicalism I’m quite confident that the answer would have little to do with the nature of biblical inspiration, or the atonement, or any of the other issues that exercise evangelicals.

For evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic is, in my view, irredeemably tainted by its successive compromises with political power. Yes, there are many evangelicals, particularly in the African American tradition, who have not sold their souls, and others from more pietistic traditions who eschew politics entirely. But these are not the movements that have shaped how evangelicalism is now perceived. Instead, a politicised and compromised evangelicalism, sometimes of the left but predominantly of the right, has taken hold of the evangelical narrative and dragged it into the gutter.

You may say that this is not the case in Ireland or the UK but, like it or not, the perception of evangelicalism in the US will inevitably shape how it is seen elsewhere. We saw something of this in the last UK election with the constant questioning of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron over his views on abortion and homosexuality. The media’s perception of Farron’s evangelicalism was shaped in part by their sense of evangelicalism as socially conservative and illiberal, a perception significantly shaped by their encounter with the dominant media narrative concerning American evangelicalism.

We may protest that evangelicalism has been misrepresented by some who take the name and that it has been misunderstood by others as a consequence, but we have not done enough to challenge or resist the Babylonian Captivity of evangelicalism at the hands of religious nationalism. So, for me, it’s time to say goodbye.

Our forebears survived in the absence of the evangelical label for 1700 years. It shouldn’t be difficult to survive without it again. In the meantime what shall we call ourselves instead? The New Testament doesn’t offer any single answer – the followers of Jesus are the saints, the elect, followers of the way, Christians, the believers and more besides. Perhaps we shouldn’t call ourselves anything, unless we are asked to give an account, and perhaps then our answer should be shaped by the needs and concerns of those asking the question. And if no-one is asking, perhaps we have more important matters to consider than what we call ourselves.

Alwyn Thomson is a member of Windsor Baptist Church, former Research Officer at ECONI and a serial expat currently living in the US.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.

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8 Responses to TIME TO BURY THE ‘E’ WORD

  1. Greetings Puran, and thanks for your comments. This same conversation is happening in the US. For example, on the ‘evangelical’ stream on patheos.com Scot McKnight believes it is time to move on from ‘evangelicalism’, while Roger Olson believes, as you do, that it is worth retaining the term with careful definition.

    While I understand this approach my problem with it is that it is, in my view, no longer possible to do so in the USA. That ship has sailed. Evangelicals who want to maintain evangelical identity in its historic form have little opportunity or time to define what they mean by evangelicalism. The media narrative excludes both these individuals because they don’t make for a good story, and excludes nuance and explanation because they don’t have time for complexity (which also undermines the simplistic narratives that drive news in the US.) I understand that in other places this is still a viable approach, but in the US context I believe it no longer is.

    Regarding the comparison between words like ‘Christian etc. and ‘evangelical’ the only response I would make is that while words like ‘Christian’, ‘liberal’ and such are contested and have a wide range of meanings, ‘evangelicalism’ in the US is, in my view, much less contested. In fact what is happening is that ‘evangelicalism’ is being more clearly and more specifically defined – the problem is the definition is being driven by people who, on the one hand, want to identify evangelicalism with a certain political ideology because they support that ideology and, on the other hand, by people who want to do so precisely because they oppose that ideology. Over time the scope of evangelicalism has become narrower, and there is less room for those who dissent from this association.

    However, all I have said must be seen in the context of what is happening specifically in the USA. I recognise that the situation in other parts of the world is very different and the scope for maintaining a more ‘traditional’ view of evangelicalism is greater.

  2. Puran Agrawal says:

    A Response to “Time To Bury The ‘E’ Word
    Alwyn Thomson brings to our consideration a very interesting and pertinent Issue: The word ‘Evangelical’ has lost any meaningful sense. The problem with the word—Bebbington’s definition and criteria notwithstanding—is that it could be used as narrowly or as broadly the user intends it to mean. Some Christians may emphasize the inspiration of the Bible as the inerrant word of God to be interpreted as literally as possible irrespective of the hermenutical and practical problems one may encounter. Others may emphasize its conversionism and activism, leaving the questions of interpretation to the individual reader of the bible.
    Sharp, and at times opposite, diffrences arise in the economic, political and social contexts. An evangelical Christian can support an extremely ‘right’ wing or extremely ‘left’ wing politicas stance, support individual liberty at the cost of values like equity and equality or equlaity and equity at the cost of liberty.
    But this dilemma arises not only in the use of label like “evangelical” but also in the use of all labels: “democratic” and “antidemocratic”, “capitalist” and “socialist”, “liberal” and “conservative” or “Illiberal”, “modern” and “postmodern” and so on. The remeady is not to refarin from using such labels but to use them with great care making their intended meanings in a particular context as precise as possible. Such labels are here to stay because they are very convenient means of conveying certain type of information as briefly ands as precisely as possible.
    Alwyn is right to point out that word “evangelicalism” has become “tainted by its successive compromise with political power” on both sides of the Atlantic, though surely not “irredeemably” given the exceptions he himself mentions. But the same could be said of the words “Christianity” and Christians” thoughout their two thousand years history. And the same is true of the words such as “Islam” or Buddhism” or “feminism” or “multiculturalism” as the discourses over at least last two to three decades testify.
    No, we do not need to bury the word “evangelical” as it still can serve useful functions. Let us, instead, be as careful as possible when we use the word making its meaning as clear as possible in the context it is used. When we find it being used improperly, then we should take the trouble to point out what the problem is or where it lies. To take an extreme example: it should be not be too difficult to point out to a white supremacist why his advocacy of racist policies is not congruent with his claim to be an evangelical christian. Nor should it be too much of a problem in pointing out why the advocacy of the “survival of the fittest” type of economic policies cannot be supported in the name of evangelical Christianity.

  3. Pingback: Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’? | the Irish Church

  4. Greetings Alwyn. Good to hear your incisive analysis again! A persuasive case alright. The post-fundamentalist evangelical coalition is dead as a coherent movement – esp in the USA it seems to me. Would be interesting to hear from others if there is a movement as such still in Britain / North / Republic.

    IF ‘evangelical’ in Bebbington’s terms is taken to mean a love for the Bible leading to personal transformation; an emphasis on repentance and faith; a focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible; and activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity empowered by the Spirit … then I don’t want to give up on that. And that sort of evangelicalism is alive and well ….

    What we call it isn’t the key issue, so if the word ‘evangelical’ needs ‘re-translated’ for another era then OK I guess ..

    • Hello Patrick. Nice to hear from you. I agree entirely that the tradition that we understand as historic evangelicalism – for want of a better phrase – so defined by Bebbington is one that needs to be asserted and maintained, in the context of a wider understanding of Christian theology and life. Like you, I don’t see the name or label as critical. For what it’s worth I tend, when asked, to identify as a Christian, as a Baptist, and as Orthodox (theologically, rather than ecclesiastically, though having spent two years in Georgia and looking forward to spending three years in Bulgaria I’ve come to appreciate Orthodoxy as an ecclesial tradition more.)

  5. D Twinem says:

    Very well put! I am one of those guilty of judging American evangelicanism for their links with politics, but in N.I. we are not exempt from the same charge. And we need to remember that people pay more attention to our deeds than our theology.

    VBN5

    • Thank you. I agree that it easy to fall into the habit of pointing the finger at others, and in this context at American evangelicals in particular, without taking a long hard look at ourselves.

      What is helpful is to recognise some of the challenges that evangelicals in the US have struggled with and seek to learn the lessons for ourselves in our own engagement with the wider community.

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